Writing flash fiction, as any writer of short stories can tell you, isn’t easy.
Not only do you face the challenge of writing within the flash fiction word count, but also your story has to keep the reader fully engaged from the title to the last sentence — and beyond.
If you want to know how to write flash fiction, learn from those who do it well.
Then use a list of inspiring flash fiction prompts to help you get started writing your own.
What is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction is the name given to short stories of (generally) fewer than 1,000 words.
It’s not the limited word count that makes good flash fiction so powerful so much as what goes into enforcing it.
Writing a memorable story of up to 100, 500, or 1,000 words takes a degree of discipline and resourcefulness that few authors have reached (or bother to).
If you’ve ever caught yourself dwelling on a short story long after you finished reading it, you know what I mean.
It’s different from the way you feel after reading a long novel with characters you’ve become attached to.
It’s different because you get just a peek into the main character’s life and character.
And that peek somehow has a deeper hold on your imagination than the hours you spent getting to know an epic fantasy character — or the main character in a cozy mystery series.
Your mind is busy exploring the what ifs and whys related to that one scene in the flash fiction character’s life.
It’s one specific scene, but it contains multitudes.
And therein lies its power.
How to Write Flash Fiction
Keep in mind you’re working to keep your story’s word count under 1,000 — and possibly under half that.
You only have room for one main character, one critical scene, and one plot.
You also get one subtle overall theme and one strong emotion.
I can’t overstate how important it is that you choose them well.
Ask experienced flash fiction authors and editors for the best flash fiction tips, and they’ll likely give you some version of the following:
- Start in the middle. Grab your reader’s attention with the meat of the story: the main conflict. There isn’t time for backstory, stage-setting, or character-building.
- Use no more characters than necessary. Every character should earn their place in a work of flash fiction. If the story works without a character, cut him out.
- Use no more words than necessary. Go easy on the adjectives and even easier on the adverbs. Use stronger verbs and nouns. And cut anything you don’t need.
- Don’t end your story at the end. With flash fiction, you want the denouement to come before the end, so there’s some time to ruminate on your character’s decision.
- Use first person or limited third person point of view (POV). Too many perspectives will muddy the message of your story. Choose one and stay close to it.
- Make sure your main character has an arc. The main conflict should change the character in some way. With flash fiction, a flat arc makes for a flat story.
- Choose a small idea rather than a big one. A small idea with laser focus (rather than a big idea with 360 degree view) is best suited to flash fiction. Keep it simple.
- Let the title do the heavy lifting. The title provides critical information for your story. Brainstorm a list of at least ten possibilities, and go from there.
- Make the last line worth remembering . Make it ring in the minds of your readers, like the song of tuning fork, for hours (if not days) afterward.
- Write freely, then keep only what your story needs. Let the words flow while you write the story. Then cut everything that doesn’t need to be there.
How Long is Flash Fiction?
Flash fiction word count usually falls under 1,000 words, and for shorter sub-types, the target can be 500, 250, or even shorter.
If you write microfiction on Twitter, you’re limited to 280 characters.
And if you think that’s short, remember Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
There really is no set minimum for flash fiction length — though flash fiction challenges don’t go lower than six words.
And depending on your audience or on the particular writing challenge, the maximum word count can vary widely.
Some will write stories of a length that fits neatly in their commute to work. Others will brainstorm ideas and focus on one a week — writing the story and then taking a few days to trim and polish it.
Flash Fiction Mistakes
Any one of the mistakes listed below will weaken your story, so please avoid them when writing for publication or for a flash fiction challenge.
- Throwaway endings that cheat the reader — Just one story with an ending like, “And then I woke up” is enough to destroy your credibility as a storyteller.
- Not enough trimming — Just because the sentence is “too pretty to die” doesn’t mean it belongs in your story. If your story works without it, cut it out.
- Poems disguised as flash fiction — They’re not the same. Prose poems can sometimes look like flash fiction, but they lack a plot and character arc.
- Strong story or character with weak ending — Strong characters (and plots) deserve strong endings. Don’t let them (or your reader) down.
- Crazy, over-the-top surrealism — This falls under the “If it’s not necessary to your story, cut it out” rule. Surrealism isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t be there for its own sake.
- Purple prose — Verbose or flowery descriptions will ruin any story. Use language that shows rather than tells, and do your best to cut all unnecessary modifiers.
- Moralistic story line — Don’t write a story to proselytize your readers or rally them to your cause. Flash fiction is about storytelling — not propaganda.
- Trite or overdone story line — If you’re going to use a popular theme (like suicide), you’ll have to work extra hard to make it stand out.
- Superficial diversity — We need more diversity in our fiction, but don’t just throw it in there to score points. Do your research to make it authentic and relatable.
Flash Fiction Examples
The best flash fiction stays with its reader for days, if not longer. The shorter length doesn’t compromise the story; it concentrates and amplifies it.
It leaves no room for words that aren’t essential to the story and its purpose.
For that reason, writing flash fiction is a challenge even for many experienced fiction writers.
Not only do they have to focus on one idea — a single, life-altering decision — and make it unforgettable.
They also have to edit as though every unnecessary word is a drop of poison in the veins of their readers.
Here are a few shining examples of flash fiction for you to check out. Learn from those who do it better than most. Then make some time to play with your own story ideas.
- “Widow’s First Year” — Joyce Carol Oates (4 words: “I kept myself alive.”)
- “Give It Up” — Franz Kafka (134 words)
- “Asthma Attack” — Etgar Keret (127 words)
- “The Huntress” — Sofia Samatar (374 words)
- “Sticks” — George Saunders (392 words)
- “Unnecessary Things” — Tatyana Tolstaya (662 words)
- “Girl” — Jamaica Kincaid (681 words)
- “John Redding Goes to Sea” — Zora Neale Hurston (741 words)
- “This is How You Fail to Ghost Him” — Victoria McCurdy (949 words)
- “Last Long Night” — Lina Rather (992 words)
- “The Comedian” — Yoko Morganstern (994 words)
Flash Fiction Practice
If you’re looking for some incentive to practice, try writing for one of the following:
- Twitter Microfiction and #vss365 (very short shorts) challenge (up to 280 characters). There’s no pay, but it’s good practice and can help you get the attention of publishers as well as fellow writers.
- Drabbles are flash fiction stories of exactly 100 words. Drabblecast buys these as well as some longer flash fiction.
- Toasted Cheese wants stories of 500 (or fewer) words for their online journal.
- If you enjoy writing experimental flash fiction, Spilled Milk takes stories of 750 words or fewer.
- And EveryDayFiction takes flash fiction stories (up to 1,000 words) of any genre.
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Now that you have a better understanding of how to write flash fiction, do you have any story ideas you’re itching to try today?
Get those words down in some form before they slip away. They have a way of doing that.
The good news? Those first scribblings about your story idea don’t have to sound inspired. They just have to get you started.
More good news? Flash fiction can be any genre you like. It doesn’t have to be highbrow to be worth writing (or reading). So, write what you love. Then chip and polish away.
And, if you feel so inspired, share your finished stories with others.